Dear HBO, I can't take you seriously

Recently, I moved apartments, and was forced to use Comcast for cable service at the new place.  On the plus side, my lovely girlfriend has taken it upon herself to pay for the service, and she wanted the full package, so we have 6 months of HBO.  This is my first direct, persistent experience with HBO, so I was quite excited to finally watch all these shows people wont shut up about.

We started by watching the first season of Boardwalk Empire.  We both thoroughly enjoyed it, and are looking forward to the next season.  However, there are some aspects of the show that... well... come off as ridiculous to me.  More on this in a moment.

Yesterday, we decided to check out another much-acclaimed HBO series, Game of Thrones.  It shared many of the same qualities as Boardwalk, notably the aforementioned "ridiculous" ones.

After taking in this HBO material, the network itself has become kind of absurd to me.
So, what am I talking about here?

The over-the-top, constant graphic sex and gore.

Let's be clear: I'm not some kind of religious prude who decries all violence or sex in entertainment.  It has its place.  I like boobs and naked women.  I play "violent" video games.  I watch porn.  However, I find there is a certain level of such things which come off as absurd in "serious" media.  HBO shows have surpassed this level.

I feel that, since HBO is a subscription-only premium channel, ostensibly only intended for an adult audience, they do this simply because they can, and not actually in service to the plot or atmosphere of the show.  To me, that is kind of... well, stupid.  Graphic sex and violence should be used sparingly.  When used appropriately, it can have an impact, some poignancy.  When used gratuitously, it becomes almost comical and demeaning to the rest of the presentation.

I'm being slightly hyperbolic when I say this, but it seems almost every 10 minutes in either show, you are going to have a graphic sex scene (just barely not porn), and someone with internal organs splattering all over the screen.  If there hasn't been such a scene within the first 10 minutes of an episode, I'd probably check to see if I was on the right channel.

What I find funny about this is that no one I've ever heard speak about these shows has ever brought this up.  Usually they are too busy gushing over how spectacular and marvelous they are, how amazing the cinematography is, or some such thing.  Critics and non-critics alike.  Everyone seems to take the shows incredibly seriously.

Don't get me wrong, the shows are immaculately produced, and extremely well-acted.  They are engrossing.  The underlying story-lines are certainly worthy of "high-brow" entertainment.  However, the inclusion of all this constant graphic material gives them a decidedly low-brow feeling.

This has lead me to conclude that these shows are popular because they give people an excuse to watch what might otherwise be porn and slasher flicks without the guilt and societal shame that comes with watching those things.  People can even talk about watching them in public — and because HBO shows are regarded as cutting-edge and top of the line, people who like them are even seen as "better," if you will.

Bottom line:
It's base entertainment in a dressed-up package that allows people to indulge in guilty pleasures without fear of social reprisal.

So my problem with it (aside from the implied hypocrisy of anyone who praises these shows but wouldn't openly talk about watching, say, Big Boob Milf Fuckfest 3), is that it just kind of makes the shows themselves feel stupid.  Like I said, I like the shows.  I like their premises, their plots, characters, acting, production values, etc.  But when multiple times an episode it will cut to a gratuitous scene of people going at it doggy style, or to pause and focus on someone's intestines falling out of their abdomen, it undercuts the drama and tension and everything else "serious" going on.  It also sort of makes me feel like kind of a loser for watching it (there's that societal guilt, I suppose).  If I want to watch people doing it, I will go watch some porn.  I don't want porn interrupting my serious drama.

Use graphic scenes sparingly, use them when you really want to shock someone, use them purposefully.  Just stop using them all the damn time.  It's silly.

Leave a comment if you think I'm full of shit :-)


F@#k You, Nvidia. Redux

Way back in the old-timey days of 2007, when senators were looking for airport glory holes, the iPhone was pre-fanboy, and China was just poisoning us with lead instead of economic policy1, this blog was making its first crawl out of the primordial goo.  One of my earliest posts was a juvenile rant directed toward 3D-graphic hardware and software company Nvidia.  Well, it seems a tiger don't change its stripes, and four years later, Nvidia is back to their old tricks of shoving undesired bloat down its customer's throats.

I'll try to keep this brief and to-the-point.  There's no real reason to pad out a rant like this, and most of it would just be excessive fucking cursing anyways.  Basically, with its most recent iterations of ForceWare (Nvidia's drivers for its GeForce series of video cards), Nvidia has seen fit to include HD audio drivers as part of the standard installation.  These would allow you to use the HDMI-out on your video card for audio as well as video output.  Not a terrible feature, in theory.  In practice, it's completely nonsensical.  I realize there are some people out there who want such a feature, but the vast majority of PC gamers are using a dedicated sound card or onboard sound on their computers.  Using the HDMI instead would, afaik, require you hook your computer up to an HD audio receiver, which would then presumably go to some surround sound system.  This would go well with using an HD tv as your monitor.  Because, you know, every PC gamer likes to sit on their living room floor when they play.

Even despite the current impracticality of the feature, it wouldn't be so bad — that is, if it didn't cause your computer to BSOD2 all the goddamned time.  That's right: due to one of those really difficult-to-isolate driver conflicts, the installation of this superfluous HD audio driver causes computers to say "fuck you," often as soon as you log in to Windows (since the "log in sound" plays).  Other times it will crash when you are watching a video, or sometimes when you are just twiddling your thumbs and admiring your desktop wallpaper.  Basically just whenever the hell it feels like it.

Lest you think this is just some problem isolated to my own PC configuration, go ahead and Google "gtx470 hd audio bsod."  There are message boards full of other angry, ranting nerds.

The worst part about this?  The solution would be incredibly simple: just include it as an option to un-check during the driver installation process.  Nvidia already do this with their 3D Vision drivers (which are useless unless you have a special monitor & glasses).  Yet for some reason, they have forced you to install these HD audio drivers for the entire past year of driver releases.  There are some complex workarounds and processes you can go through to try and fix this problem, as outlined on those aforementioned nerd forums.  I've tried a couple, and the thing still rears its ugly head (plus you have to repeat the painful fix process every time you update the driver).  Thankfully, it never seems to occur during actual gameplay, but it still happens with enough frequency that it is murderous-rage-inducing.

Come on Nvidia.  Seriously.  Fix this bullshit.

1. For some reason, I originally wrote this section for 1997, saying "Way back in the old-timey days of 1997, when scientists were busy cloning sheep, Heaven's Gate was spiking the punch, and boxers were eating each-others appendages..." Man, 1997 was such a cooler year than 2007.  Oh yeah, China has been screwing us with economics since before 2007, but saying it this way was funnier.

2. BSOD = Black screen of death (formerly, blue screen of death). Basically a system crash where your monitor goes black and you are forced to restart your computer.


Dead Space 2 - Actually pretty good

Occasionally I feel the need to balance out the stream of loathing that usually populates this blog with a positive review of something I actually enjoyed.

This is going to be kind of a mini-review since there isn't terribly much to say about this game.  Mostly, it's just a fun game.  That's the entire point of games isn't it really, to be fun?  Developers Visceral live up to their name once again, as that's the best adjective one could use to describe the Dead Space experience.  There's nothing like being surrounded by hordes of terrible nightmarish monsters and proceeding to blow off their arms and legs one by one... and then stomp their corpses in to mush (just because, fuck you, monsters).

At its time of release, I wasn't terribly interested in Dead Space 2.  There were a lot of lackluster reviews, and then to make matters (much) worse, one of the worst marketing campaigns in the history of video games.  Thanks EA, you probably set back public perception of video games by 20 years.

Anyways, the game plays out more or less the same as the first one.  This sounds like a bad thing, but when the core game itself is really enjoyable, then more of the same with a few new features and a story continuation is often much more welcome than a completely changed sequel.  You once again play Isaac Clarke, stuck on the most depressing space station ever, fighting off hordes of undead/mutated monsters and trying to escape the hellish nightmare, while the ultimate antagonist is (again) an evil company man who inexplicably cares more about research than slaughtering thousands of people (who probably pay his salary) and destroying billions of dollars worth of equipment and property.  Weyland-Yutani much?

Anyways, here's a quick rundown:

The Good

  • More extensive and varied level environments, coupled with no artificial level-transitions (you had to ride a train between every level in the previous game) or loading screens.
  • Going right along with that, some added gameplay variation, such as extended zero-g sequences and some falling/dodging shit sequences.  They aren't that drastic or frequent (or even inventive), but they serve to break up the monotony of dark corridors a little better.
  • Removal of shitty gameplay elements that I'm pretty sure nobody liked, such as the asteroid-shooting one.
  • Giving Isaac Clarke a voice, face, and dialogue, despite it still being generic video game white guy, served to engage me more with the plot and make me care a little more what happened.
  • The sound design is marvelous, as it was in the first game.
  • It's not the best looking game in the world, but it looks pretty nice and graphically runs incredibly smooth.
  • Customizable keybinds! This shouldn't even need to be said, but somehow PC ports seem to miss it all the time.  There is one exception though, which I'll cover in the next section.
  • A much more harrowing and appropriate endgame section.  The final boss itself was a pushover, once again, but the section immediately preceding it was insane.  It basically has you running through a nonstop gauntlet of Necromorphs while simultaneously being perused by a regenerating super-Necromorph, and pretty much running empty on ammo and health kits (the one and only time in the game that will happen, btw).
The Bad
  • There were a decent amount of really cheap deaths that became rather obnoxious.  They were pretty much entirely related to quick-time events.  I'm not sure I ever died outside of a stupid quick time event, actually.  
  • Quick time events.  Enough already.
  • Okay, so the one keybind issue I had is directly related to quick time events.  Most of the quick time events entailed mashing an action button, except for some reason that button wasn't mapped to any key, and despite pressing every key that was bound to anything, nothing happened.  I ended up having to keep my Xbox controller on standby so I could hit the A button whenever a QTE happened.
  • I was kind of disappointed that despite being a continuation of the Dead Space story, you don't really learn anything new about what all is going on.  As far as I can tell most of the plot is just Isaac dealing with PTSD and regrets about his girlfriend dying from the first game.  You don't actually find out anything about the Necromorphs or the marker or any of that crazy shit.
  • That's pretty much it, really.  The cheap deaths, which were mostly QTE instant-kills, were the only thing that really pissed me off throughout the game.
One final note: Don't call this game "survival horror."  It simply is not.  You will generally never find yourself wanting for ammo or health kits, you have tons of destructive weapons at your disposal, and the enemies are pretty manageable.  The horror part also depends on your own definition of horror.  As others have said, Dead Space is more akin to a slasher flick — it's gory as crap but the "scares" are all monsters popping out of dark places and yelling at you at predictable moments.  After you get over the initial shock value, there's nothing remaining to creep you out.  I'd say at about 1/4 of the way through the game, you start to roll your eyes at the monsters and go "Oh, you again? Don't you have any new tricks?  Feh... I'll kill you now."  That's not to say it isn't still fun to play.

Anyways, if you had been putting off playing it, the game is only $20 now on Amazon ($40 for the collector's edition or console versions), so you might as well go pick it up and have fun spending 10 hours blowing evil space monsters to shit.

Hmm... that turned out to be a long-ish review after all.


Hydrophobia: Prophecy - This game sucks

Just to give a little background, Hydrophobia is an indie game developed by Dark Energy Digital, purportedly sporting some amazing water effects and physics and Uncharted-like gameplay. It's set in a floating city where (of course) everything goes to hell and you have to escape/find out what's going on.

I saw some trailers and it piqued my interest, but unfortunately like a lot of interesting indie games these days, it was originally exclusively on XBLA.  Recently, it came to Steam.  Even more recently (yesterday), it went on sale... for $3.   Normally it's only $12, so still not very expensive.  It was on my "hmm...maybe" list, so for $3 I figured "why not," and bought it.

Generally speaking, I feel like kind of an ass complaining about something so cheap.  However, the phrase "you get what you pay for" doesn't always apply to the realm of video games.  There are tons of marvelous games for very cheap, and plenty of complete stinkers for the standard $49.99/59.99.  Bearing that in mind, I feel I am fully within my rights to declare this game a piece of crap, which even for $3 was rather disappointing.

First of all, the graphical flare is greatly exaggerated.  I try to keep an open mind, but I'm seriously starting to believe that people who only play games on Xbox are amazed by anything that looks even slightly good.  Coming from a PC gaming background, this game does not impress.  I turned everything to full and it... it just looks bad.  Actually, it looks like there is something good underneath, but that somebody smeared Vaseline all over your monitor.  I'm going to attribute that effect to the overzealous depth-of-field blur and lens flare (aka things developers use to cover up the fact that their textures and polygon counts look like crap).

As for gameplay, it does kind of feel like a very cheap Uncharted knock-off.  It has the same general platforming and 3rd-person shooter aspects.  They just... don't work as smoothly or comfortably.  I can't really pinpoint any one thing, but the overall controls feel clunky and inconsistent.  The level design is pretty terrible.  A game that is this completely linear should not have you feeling lost and confused about where to go next.  The game provides you with the option to turn on an always-on objective indicator.  I like to keep those turned off for a more immersing experience usually, but I guess this is one of those games that actually really needs them.

To cap it off, the game has some really god awful voice acting.  Oh, and almost every time you turn a corner in a corridor, the game yanks control away from you for some stupid cutscene.  Having made these two complaints, I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  I made similar complaints in my review of the beta of DX:HR on here, but now having played Hydrophobia, it really seems unfair.  Human Revolution is light years of quality ahead in those departments as compared to this game.  Okay, yes, DX:HR is a triple-A title with a massive budget from a major studio and a $50 price tag, so it probably should be exponentially better in production quality.  I suppose quality voice acting can be expensive and not something an indie game might be able to afford (which is why many of them don't bother with it!).  Still, it's just disgusting here.  I feel like I'm playing the original Resident Evil or something.

Let's take in to account some absolutely fantastic games I've also bought on the cheap during a Steam sale: Left 4 Dead ($7.49), The Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition ($2.50), Trine ($5), Amnesia: The Dark Descent ($4.80).  Most of them even have great voice acting.  When factoring that in, Hydrophobia really just completely sucks.  So spend your few bucks on one of them instead.


Deus Ex: Human Revolution Beta - Final thoughts

When I last left off, I had just entered an "open world" city-at-large portion of the game, with various side quests and a main quest as options, as well as general exploration.

This part made me phenomenally happy.  It was the (mostly) barrier-free exploration I had been craving throughout the game thus far.  After experiencing this segment, my displeasure with the game has somewhat quelled.  Yes, I can often be quick to judge.  If you had only read my first entry in this series (and by you, I mean me, since I'm pretty sure I'm the only one reading this), you would probably think that Human Revolution was one of the worst games ever conceived.  While it still has many flaws, it had become a game I would definitely say is worth playing, and it is now compelling enough that you don't want to walk away from playing.  Also making it more compelling is the story, which has finally picked up and piqued my interest.  There are now a lot of parallels with the plot from Ghost in the Shell, an old favorite of mine.

My main gripe with the game at this point is what I would call qualitative inconsistency.  I'm not talking about stuff that would only fall under a beta-build issue either.

On the positive side, there are a lot of really cool details in the game that don't affect the overall gameplay, but when you see them, you pause and go "wow, that's really neat that they put that in." For instance, when you shoot someone with the tranquilizer rifle, you can actually see the tranq dart sticking out of their body where you shot them.  When you walk past a bum in an alley, occasionally they will be whistling the theme to the original Deus Ex.  When you are looking out the window of a tall building, the skyline you see is a stylized version of the actual Detroit skyline.  When I see things like this in a game, it brings a smile to my face, and lets me know that the developers were really passionate about the project.

On the flipside are things that make the game feel shoddy.  Many of these I've already mentioned — things like dialogue, npc animation, voice acting, the rigid plastic environment, etc.  The voice acting has been especially irritating to me.  It's hit or miss, like much of the game.  Sometimes a characters voice will be wonderfully emotive, and really draw you in to the game.  Other times the voice will be an absurdly cartoonish caricature, so much so that it breaks immersion and I actually laugh to myself at it — certainly not something you want to happen in a serious-toned game like this.  I'm fairly certain something as major as voice acting or character animation wont be fixed in the final release.  Those are more than just minor polishes.

It's because of these inconsistencies I'm still on the fence about the game.  Not about ever getting it — I would certainly like to buy the full thing and play through it at some point.  But the excitement and enthusiasm I once had for it is more or less gone.  So while I wouldn't call this game a "must have," I would say it's worth your time to check it out at some point, especially if there's any sort of reasonable price drop.

Oh, btw, apparently there is a quick save function.  It's assigned to F5 by default.  I only found out via a friend, and I have no idea how he found out (other than pressing all the keys?) since there is no indication of it in-game and no entry for it in the key-mapping options.  Hopefully these keybind issues will be sorted out in the final build.


More Feces Flung at PC Gamers

UPDATE 8.20.2011

Since originally writing this post, significant more information has come out about Origin and other EA games, namely the highly anticipated Battlefield 3.

Origin is not only a DD storefront, but it is also apparently a DRM system for EA games.  Great, just what PC gamers need, another DRM system.  We already have Steam, Ubisoft's UPlay, and GFWL, the latter two of which frequently cause endless problems (and sometimes the inability to play the game they paid for) for a whole lot of users.

Oh, and as many had predicted, BF3 will not be sold on Steam.  It is increasingly looking like no major EA titles will be sold on Steam any longer, unless they resolve a dispute they are having over the distribution of DLC.

But that's not the worst of it.  The diarrhea icing on this shit cake is that no matter where you buy BF3, even if you get a brick & mortar boxed retail copy, you will be required to install and use Origin.  Hooray!  I'm all but done with this game now.

You know what?  For all the shit Activision and Modern Warfare take for being terrible, greedy, evil, diabolical bastards, they haven't pulled anything this retarded.  I'm not going to support them because I don't like their other practices, but at the very least, they are not shoving additional DRM and storefronts down PC gamers throats.  Maybe because... I don't know... they want to increase the level of user accessibility, not make it more restrictive?  Since something like low-barrier entry to playing the game is better for sales?

Original Post:

In the past day or so, two news stories have come out that, as a PC gamer1, really irk me.

The first is from id Software about their upcoming shooter Rage.  The gist of it is that because the console market makes up 2/3 of their projected sales, id are designing the game specifically for consoles, and the PC version will be more of an afterthought.

Ok, so by now, pretty much everyone knows that, yes, console game sales generally more than eclipse PC sales.  That's fine.  Devs and publishers are businesses, they need to make money, etc etc, it's been said.  We get it.

What bothers me is the dismissive and callous nature with which this treats the PC market.  In the first quote, CEO Todd Hollenshead seems to sarcastically imply that the PC market will be a third if they are lucky.  Well, Holesinhead, how do you think pompous statements about console priority will reflect on your PC sales?  Positively?  No, I don't think so.  By the very act of making such statements, you are only compounding the low-pc-sales problem. 

It galls me that developers and publishers are constantly making such obviously insulting press statements, and constantly neglecting their PC user base, and yet still sit there going "Hmm, I wonder why our PC sales are so low?" Oblivious much?

Do you think that a PC gamer who is on the fence about buying this game is going to be convinced to buy it after hearing how their platform of choice is the redheadded stepchild in the eyes of the game's developer?  Piracy is a problem, to be sure, but it becomes an even larger problem when game makers do things of this nature, because it gives people the excuse they are looking for to "justify" their illegal download.

This particular case makes even less sense to me, as it states that PC is roughly 1/3 of the sales.  The other 2/3 are split by PS3 and Xbox.  For the sake of argument, let's say that PS3 and Xbox are also each an even third.  One third of your entire sales market is nothing to sneeze at.  Why is it okay to treat that third unequally to the other two thirds?  To me, this is the same thing as them saying "Well, PS3 only makes up 1/3 of our projected sales, so we are developing priority for Xbox and PC, and then porting to PS3 from there."  It's not as if the PS3 and Xbox share the same development environment.  They are completely different systems.  If anything, developing for PC and Xbox are a more similar process.  This almost feels like an arbitrary "screw you" to the PC crowd.  This is also especially upsetting coming from id, who were once a bastion of PC gaming.

Add to this facts like Rage being sold for $60 on PC, despite there being no $12 Xbox/PS3 per-disc fee associated with it.  Is it really any wonder that PC sales are low?  This type of treatment will only cause them to plummet further.

Well, thank god all developers do not share this mentality (although it is becoming increasingly more prevalent).  Earlier this year, I was extremely happy to hear that EA/DICE were developing Battlefield 3 with the PC as platform of priority.  They essentially said that developing for the lowest common denominator for a high-quality game is an absurd premise, and that they want to develop the best quality possible, then scale back where necessary for consoles.  Not only did this give me joy as a PC gamer, but it filled me with some pride for the video game industry as a whole to see that a high-profile developer was pushing things to the limit and taking the high road.  I was feeling all set to support EA/DICE with my hard-earned money this fall.

Oh, but then this happened...

Yes, that's right, EA is setting up their own digital distribution service and possibly making it the only place to buy EA games digitally.  Now, so far it's only with Crysis 2 (perhaps to test the waters), but as the article mentioned, they might be doing the same for BF3 and other future releases.

Just when I thought it was safe to go back in the water, and that EA actually understood what PC gamers want, they make this stupid blunder.  Pulling games from Steam?  Really?

Don't misunderstand me — I'm all for a competitive marketplace.  The more places there are to buy something, the better for the consumer.  However, project Origin (coincidentally the name of an evil science experiment in a popular FPS franchise...lol) appears to be going the exact opposite route.  Thus far, it is apparently only pulling a game from Steam, and not other digital distributors such as Impulse, but it seems reasonable to assume that they will extend this exclusionary practice to cover all venues in the future.

Why this bothers me so much:

PC gamers have enough crap to deal with these days.  They already have to overcome the obnoxious hurdles of multifaceted DRM, multiple "community" log ins, and some people already use several DD stores.  Adding another to the pile isn't helping the situation.  Steam managed to somewhat ameliorate many of these issues, while simultaneously providing a pleasurable user experience.  But many publishers don't seem to give a crap about user experience these days.  They focus increasingly on maximizing profit and nothing else — taking the "we don't care if we annoy or offend people, as long as it manages to net us an extra half-cent per sale" approach.  So, when EA sees Valve becoming wildly successful off of Steam, they think "why not me?"

Well, perhaps because Steam has been built up slowly over the better part of a decade, and was not just some overnight get-rich-quick scheme.  At its inception, Steam was merely a tool for Valve to uniformly distribute patches and prevent cheating on its own games, such as Counter-Strike.  Over its eight years of operation, Steam has evolved in to much more than that.  It now hosts robust user community features, unprecedented inter-connectivity between online players on games using Steam servers, and one of the most streamlined and user-friendly DD stores I've encountered (not to mention $ALES $ALES $ALES!).

All this is to say, no EA, you cannot be Steam.  Your prior EA online store was pathetic and terribly unintuitive to use, so if you are using that as a basis for Origin, it just makes the possibilities even worse.    Steam is already well-established, has a massive user base, and a very loyal following.  As stated above, they also offer a lot more than just a storefront.  People generally do not want to have to sign in to multiple things, download multiple things, manage multiple accounts, when they can do most of it in one place.  Even without all the vitriol now directed towards you as as result of this, your exposure on your own proprietary EA-only storefront is going to be far smaller than with Steam, so I can't imagine it boosting profits, even if you no longer have to sell through a middleman.

Another thing EA doesn't seem to understand is that Steam is run by Valve, and unlike EA, PC gamers like and, more importantly, trust Valve.  Valve has built up a plethora of goodwill from PC gamers over the years by treating them right, and this carries over to Steam.  Up until the evil grinning face of Bobby Kotick2 replaced it, EA sat prominently on the throne of publishers that people really hated.  They were only just recently beginning to recoup people's trust.

The idea of Origin further annoys me because publishers are constantly trying out their new half-baked schemes almost exclusively on PC users.  Why are we the lab rats?  Why is it okay to screw with our gaming experience, but not with console users?  Would EA ever pull games from PSN or XBLA and start their own service directly against them?  Probably not.  Of course there are multiple reasons for this, but the feeling of constantly experimented on is very strong as a PC user.

On the flipside, my predictions could be completely wrong, and there is always the chance that project Origin will be a huge windfall for EA, and manages to beat Steam at its own game. I see this as the worst possible outcome.  Why?  Because of the monkey-see monkey-do approach of game publishers that I previously alluded to.  If Origin is a big success for EA, then the next thing you know Activision, Ubisoft, and every other major publisher is going to think that starting up their own exclusive DD stores is a brilliant idea.  Call me insane, but the thought of having to contend with multiple storefront accounts, multiple types of proprietary DRM, multiple software installations, etc — just to play different games on the same platform — makes me want to projectile vomit.  Sometimes I feel like there is a conspiracy by publishers to make PC gaming such a miserable experience that everyone begrudgingly switches to consoles.

One final bit, which I find kind of perplexing.  As you may or may not know, EA is the distributor for Valve's releases on consoles (ironic, right?).  Valve is (was?) one of several digital distributors for EA on PC.  This seems like it would be some kind of mutually beneficial arrangement.  I of course don't know the details behind it, but I almost have the feeling that this announcement of Origin could just be the knee-jerk result of some petty contract disagreement between the two companies.  Hell, it's not like there's been another recent example of EA completely missing the point due to misguided competitiveness.  I mean, aside from almost their entire Battlefield 3 marketing campaign, that is.

1. I play the vast majority of my games on PC, but I also own a PS3 on which I play games. (I also also own an SNES, Dreamcast, DS, and co-own NES, Gamecube, Wii with my girlfriend).

ps: I fucking hate the terminology "PC."  What, a Mac isn't a personal computer?

2. Bobby Kotick is the CEO of Activision, EA's biggest competitor.  He is infamous for his greed and making ridiculous statements that offend gamers across the board.


Deus Ex: Human Revolution Beta - Continued Review

Alright, so I may have been a bit hasty in my mostly condemning first-take on this game.  It was, as I stated, based on the first 1.5 missions in the game, roughly 2.5 hours of play or so.  If this had been an actual demo, and cut off after the intro mission, it would have left a severely sour taste in my mouth.  Luckily this is not the case.  I was pretty intensely bored and put-off by the beginning of the game, so afterwards I found it difficult to muster up the desire to play more of it (what with so many other games on my plate).  Last night, I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt and continue playing.

I'm glad I decided to do this.  I finished playing through the 2nd mission and intermediary (at the Serif office) stage, stopping right before heading out in to the city at large.  Happily, the game became much more engrossing and some of the rigidness of the introductory stages seems to be disappearing.  It certainly no longer feels like a "generic shooter," as I previously stated.

(minor spoilers follow!)

Dialogue seems to be opening up a bit more.  The end of mission 2 has you using your dialogue options to outwit a hostage-taker.  You are given three tonal approaches to how you address the NPC, causing them to take a different reaction.  It's pretty forgiving, as the various types of dialogue categories were presented several times in succession, even if they initially "fail."  This is different than say, Mass Effect, where you are railroaded down a certain dialogue path depending on what your initial choice is.  I think I like it better, but at the same time it felt a bit too tolerant of my potential blunders — I wonder if perhaps this becomes more difficult down the road?

Unfortunately, the awful character animation remains, which winds up making NPC-interaction feel stilted and cheesy regardless of how good the voice acting or writing is (which is still hit or miss1).  This is probably the area of the game where I still take the most exception — the look and feel.  The visual aesthetic has some nice qualities, and I like the color palette they decided to use, but graphically and technically it feels either old or amateurish.  Six years ago if I was playing a Hitman game, these things would have been negligible.  I'm not saying every game should have LA Noire-level of character detail (although I've heard their body animations are still lacking), but any game focused on heavy NPC-interaction in 2011 really needs to move beyond the "wooden robot" stage.  The mostly static environment still irks me as well, although it looks like you are able to move more things around once you upgrade your strength aug.

I also got to encounter a bunch of hacking sequences.  I really enjoy the way these are designed, as they are engaging, nicely varied, appropriately challenging, and feel somewhat realistic (minus the gui part, of course).

The remainder of the second mission sadly remained pretty linear.  I feel that, now that I have acquired some side missions and entered an outside area, perhaps this will be changing.  I'll have to wait and see.  Happily there have been no further instances of player control being removed, and forcibly having to follow an NPC around.

So, yes, I am enjoying the game much more than I initially did.  There are, however, a bunch of things that still have not improved and that bother me enough to reiterate:

  • The FMV cut scenes.  These things pop up at every crucial plot moment.  They don't even look good.  At least if you are going to have pre-rendered out-of-engine cut scenes, the level of detail in them should be astounding.  Otherwise, what's the point?
  • Really dumb NPC AI.  I'm hoping the enemies get more challenging as the game goes on because, even in the hardest difficulty setting, the enemy AI is laughable.  In several instances, I would tranq one guard, then wait for the other guards to run over and tranq them one after the other as they tried to revive their downed teammates, leaving a giant pile of bodies in the middle of a room.
  • The inventory system is still buggy as hell.  I don't know if this is a legitimate bug or just something with the way my controls are set up.  Either way it's really impeding gameplay.  I feel like this might be a result of sloppy control porting duties by Nixxes.
  • One-button takedowns.  Yes, they use up a "battery" each time, so it's not like you can just do them through the entire level.  Still, they are way too simplified.  I'm surprised that with all the abilities initially stripped away in the beginning of the game, that this wasn't one of them.  I feel like a better system would be to make them more complex/cumbersome at the beginning and then gradually (via aug upgrades) make them easier and more powerful, so that you can only do the one-button thing when the aug/skill has been fully upgraded.  Plus any time a game uses canned animations over and over again, it feels really crappy.
That's pretty much all I've got for now.  I'm going to play some more in the (hopefully) open city area and check out the sidequests.  I'm hoping this will shut me up about it being too linear.  After that I will probably call it quits on this "demo" because I don't want to play too far in to it when I'm eventually going to be buying the full game later.  That said, I still think I'll be waiting for it to go on sale before making the purchase.

PS: Something I thought was incredibly hilarious — one of the generic NPC bad guy voices sounds a lot like Carl from Aqua Teen.  

1. Ok so the "bad guy" who faces off in hostage negotiation with you at the end of the 2nd mission has this stereotypical LA latino gangbanger voice and vernacular. Kind of like a thuggish Cheech Marin. It's pretty cheesy and feels out of place considering the character is supposed to be this war veteran/underground guerrilla movement guy breaking in to a high-tech company to steal secrets.


Some people who can just go die

I'd like to take a small break from reviewing games to highlight a couple types of people, all of which I encountered on this morning's commute, who can just go die.

  • Guys driving around street/sidewalk-sweepers during commute time in the summer.  I realize that this is apparently your job, and someone assigned you to this nonsensical task, so your manager/agency can go die as well.  All this does is kick up massive clouds of dust and pollen in to everyone's faces and lungs.  Who thought this was a good idea?  God forbid the street looks a little dirty, I'd much rather inhale plumes of filth!  At least wait until the streets are less crowded with pedestrians, you nimrods.
  • People who walk down the middle of a crowded sidewalk, smoking, trailing hot smoke in people's faces on already hot, dry days.  Well, chances are you will die, of cancer, so I guess I don't need to say it again. 
    Ah, what the hell... GO DIE!
  • People in the Metro who stand on the left side of the escalator.  Yeah, this is a common complaint, but it always bears repeating.  Seriously?  Do you not posses the basic human ability of visual perception?  That is, are you fucking blind?  Do you ever just wonder to yourself, "Hmm, why is everyone on the right side standing, and everyone on the left side walking?  Why is there a huge line of people behind me giving me murderous glares?"  Gee, I wonder why that could be.  You are a self-absorbed slug, oblivious to everything occurring in the world around you.  In this day and age, with most Metro stations featuring closed-off or broken escalators, this "rule" is especially important.  You might not have somewhere to be in the morning (in which case, why the fuck are you on the Metro in downtown DC at 8:30am?), but I and a lot of other people do.  The Metro, with its constant delays, is already making us late enough as it is.  We don't need your ignorant ass impeding our commute on top of that.
Thanks for bearing with me on this.


Duke Nukem Forever - First Access Club Demo

A while back when Gearbox announced that Duke Nukem Forever was indeed a thing, and that it was going to be released in 2011, they also announced the "First Access Club" as bonus to people who bought Gearbox's other recent title, Borderlands. Basically it was a marketing gimmick in the guise of keeping true fans up to date on the game. For the most part it was nothing amazing — a few wallpapers and concept art given out. I think I signed up out of a combination of morbid curiosity and nostalgia. It seems to finally be offering some cool stuff though, in the way of free DLC and early access to the demo. So yesterday I downloaded the demo via Steam and today I played through it.

I'm kind of at a loss for words. Not because I'm so astounded by it, or horribly disappointed. I'm kind of indifferent really. With a game like this, I'm not really sure what to expect. I was never really sure what to expect. The game industry's longest-running joke actually coming to light is something a lot of people never really thought would happen. It kind of took everyone by surprise. So in some respects, DNF can be viewed in the light of a decade-worth of nostalgia and pent-up desires. Or it can simply be viewed as a new triple-A1 shooter. I'm not entirely sure it meets expectations on either front, but then I'm not entirely sure it disappoints either. I don't think Duke Nukem was ever revered as some venerable franchise of gaming masterpieces. It was fun, entertaining, and pretty decent for a shooter of its era. But it wasn't really a Doom, or Half-Life, as far as making lasting impressions on the genre and industry.

Aaaaaanyways, this is all just a very verbose way of me attempting to contextualize my reaction to the demo, which can be summed up with one physical gesture: a shrug.

It was neither good nor bad, but ultimately it was forgettable. Of course, this is the reaction to a short, uninspired demo, and might not necessarily reflect the full game. However, I expect developers/publishers to release demos as products which do indeed reflect the full game experience, and are intended to positively influence pre-sale orders and things of that nature. Time and time again I've decided that developers are complete fucking morons when it comes to demos, and they often end up doing more harm than good. I don't really know what the case is for Gearbox this time around. Whatever it is, based upon this demo, I will most assuredly not be buying the game any time soon.

Here's the thing — the game feels like a good Duke Nukem game, but as a Duke Nukem game from 10 years ago. It has not evolved in any conceivable manner. It feels flat, and underdeveloped. It's not the type of product you expect of a triple-A title in this day and age. It seems to be attempting a ride entirely off the fumes of nostalgia. Nostalgia can only go so far2, however, especially considering that a significant portion of the game consumers out there are too young to even know who the hell Duke Nukem is. With a market currently bombarded by carbon-copy modern shooters, how does this game stand out among the rest? Dick jokes? Well, maybe. Half the appeal of Duke Nukem as a teenager was that it was "naughty" as compared to other games of its time. Sexual innuendo, mild swearing, severely-pixelated strippers. These are the kinds of things that open teenage wallets (although I don't remember ever paying for Duke Nukem 3D, and this was the pre-P2P era).

What I'm saying is that no matter the demographic, the game doesn't have much to go on. I almost feel the best it could do is tap in to the "irony" sales market (which seems to be a disgustingly popular trend these days).

Graphically, it looks like boiled turd. I realize Duke Nukem goes for a somewhat stylized, cartoony approach, and thus I shouldn't be on the lookout for photo-realism. Even in that realm, when held up against other "cartoon-styled" games (even Gearbox's own Borderlands), it looks like ass. To make matters worse in this department, the game uses a strange DOF/blurring effect which makes everything, except for the tiny spot on the screen you are directly aiming at, appear disturbingly fuzzy. Not blurry, mind you, but fuzzy. Like someone stuck a bad frosted-glass Photoshop filter over everything. I have no idea what maniac let this pass through the development process. I'm sure there has to be a setting in an .ini file somewhere to turn it off, but it's not present in the in-game graphical settings, which means people playing on consoles (or the technically inept on PC) will be forced to endure it.

As there's no real story to speak of (big guy blows aliens up), gameplay is really all Duke Nukem has to fall back on. This appears to be fundamentally lacking. While the elder Duke Nukem games showcased some features otherwise un-present in most of their peers, such as a jetpack allowing you to move along a 3rd axis, or interactive environmental objects (vending machines, sinks, etc), relying on these same gimmicks to wow people in this day and age isn't possible. So what used to be "OMG I CAN PEE IN A URINAL!" is now "Okay, I can pee in a urinal... what else is there to do in this game?" Maybe (maybe) people in the under-20 demographic will think it's worth $50+ to be able to draw dicks on a whiteboard in a game, but I'm not sure it will be enough to ensure financial success, or instigate a renewed Duke Nukem cult following. There does appear to be a vehicle/driving section for a change of pace, but I didn't get a very good feel for it in the demo. I have a feeling it will pale in comparison to other games which feature driving portions, such as id's forthcoming Rage.

Much of this I find to be very saddening, as there are some admirable qualities in the game: most notably, the idea of a shooter being being a game where you can actually run around and shoot stuff, as opposed to being dragged around by an untouchable NPC through half the game. Not to mention that some of the crude humor and 4th-wall-breaking/video game-based jokes are indeed pretty funny (much needed in an age when most games take themselves way too goddamned seriously). There's also John St. John's stellar and iconic voice work. I can't help but crack a smile every time he bellows out an overtly-macho gag line.

These hints of greatness are not enough to combat the overwhelming dullness of the rest of the game though. I'm not going to write it off completely — there's always the chance that Gearbox just made an incredibly shitty demo and that the rest of the game is monumentally more fun. With so many things vying for my dollars these days, I will at the very least wait for a Steam sale before considering this a worthwhile purchase.

1. A "triple-A" game is one that has a large budget, a high-profile marketing campaign, published by a large commercial game publisher, and commonly sees a multi-platform (PS3, Xbox 360, and PC) release.

2. ...and apparently has, as the game has already gone Gold in pre-sales! (wtf)


My Intitial Thoughts on the Deus Ex: Human Revolution "Leaked Beta"

Two days ago I read about a "beta" 8-hour demo version of the forthcoming Deus Ex game being released on the internet. I normally don't bother with these sorts of things, but Human Revolution is a game I have really high hopes for, and was very interested in seeing how it is going to turn out. Mostly, my great concern for it is the fact that the PC version is going to be a port of the console version. That the original Deus Ex is a seminal and important representation of PC games of yore makes this factor all the more relevant. With Human Revolution the series has the chance to restore its former glory, and hopefully make everyone forget about Invisible War. I also read that Eidos apparently was not attempting to shut it down and that they were actually welcoming feedback about it on their forums. This spurred me on. So I said, why not. I'll download it, play it, and it will help inform my purchase decision. If it's great, I still have time to pre-order. If it sucks, then I will know to wait until several months after release and it goes on sale.

Last night I installed it, and began playing.

(Note: Scroll to the bottom for updates/corrections)

I have only thus far played it for little over an hour, so I will treat this review as if I was playing a demo of the game (they usually run about an hour). For the most part it doesn’t feel much different than your average modern shooter, that is to say very formulaic.

The intro level is split in to two parts:
Part 1 – you float around behind an NPC (“on rails” and unable to move) while they lead you through a facility.
Part 2 – you run down a linear corridor and shoot some generic NPC baddies.

This is interspersed with some FMV cutscenes (making the game feel all the more dated). Really, FMV cutscenes that pop in and out of gameplay, in this day and age, feel like poor game design more than anything else. At least have cutscenes play in-engine so there isn’t the awkward contrast of: here’s a “realer” looking version of your characters, and here’s a less real one. I guess this is a Squenix production after all…

If this doesn’t sound like every recent shooter you’ve ever played, then you haven’t played any recent shooters. As I continue to play, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that there aren’t any more npc-leading-you-by-the-hand moments. To compare it to something else more closely related, the entire intro actually felt very much like the intro level in Invisible War. In case you hadn’t heard, Invisible War was, by most accounts, a completely terrible game that shat all over the Deus Ex name. In IW’s defense, at least it didn’t take away player control in the intro at all. HR does this with alarming frequency.

Something else that has me worried about the linearity of the game – there is only a checkpoint system. No manual saving. In my book, manual saving is a must for any game that hopes to convey any sense of openness. (See update #1)

This experience is a stark contrast to the intro level/ first mission in the original Deus Ex. In that game you are plopped in to a large open level with little guidance other than a mission briefing. Games these days seem to design to the lowest common denominator, insisting on always having an introductory mission that holds your hand, and prompts you every two seconds reminding you what your keybinds are (by having a place to jump, a place to duck, and a place to shoot!). I had hoped that the developers of Deus Ex would think more highly of their audience. I guess this is what happens when you go for a multi-platform wide release. It was also hilarious to note that the tutorial videos used Xbox controller buttons in their demonstrations. Assuming I didn’t, for some idiotic reason, know what my keybinds were, this would be immensely unhelpful. I’m assuming that this is only a “Beta version” oversight and will be gone by full release.

Otherwise, Nixxes seems to have done a fairly admirable job of providing a competent PC control scheme. I have yet to encounter any unchangeable default keybinds (as I have in many other ports), and the various menus are all mappable to separate keys. I haven’t had a chance to use the augs in gameplay yet, so hopefully that proves to be effortless as well.

Some of the next part I’m hoping is merely a result of this being an early, un-polished build.

Graphically, the game looks very dated. If you’ve been oohing and ahhing at the gameplay footage you’ve seen online, be assured that at full resolution, it does not look nearly as pretty. Low res textures are everywhere, and the environment has a feel of looking very flat, almost as if we are still using sprites. The environment itself is very static. That is to say, when you shoot stuff, bullet-hole decals appear, but nothing else happens. You cannot move or otherwise affect most objects in any way. There are some specific interactable objects scattered throughout the level, mostly in the form of large crates (but not all of the crates, only certain ones!) that you can throw. I also managed to pull a fire extinguisher off the wall and throw it and have it explode, but I’m pretty sure they did that specifically because everyone expects fire extinguishers in games to explode. That was pretty much the only object besides the “throwing crates” I was able to do anything with.

The art style seems to be on that borderline of “we wanted to make this look realistic but we ran out of time.” Characters have somewhat cartoony features, and skin and hair looks to be made out of shellacked wood. This combined with the atrocious character animation and stock npc death-poses, once again, feels out of place in a modern triple-A game.

These issues become especially glaring in dialogue sequences, when you are forced to stand perfectly still, staring in to the NPC’s dead robot eyes. As they banter at you, they make stiff, jerking movements with their necks and arms. There is no ability to skip or fast-forward through dialogue, either, so you just have to sit there and take it in (see update #1). When you do finally get the chance to interject your own dialogue, your options are pretty limited. I’m hoping this opens up further in to the game, but in the parts I’ve played thus far, you are presented with either an “aggressive” or “passive” dialogue response. This prompt does not come up every time your character speaks, either, just whenever the game feels like it.

The other component to dialogue, voice acting, seems to be hit or miss. Your character is fairly well-acted (although he sounds strangely like Martin Sheen trying to do Solid Snake), but out of the three major NPC’s I interacted with, only one of them felt natural, with the other two sounding as if they were reading from the most boring manual ever, with their French-Canadian accents bleeding through. The writing itself is not bad, although I have already encountered multiple cliché lines (“Are you ready for this?” “Only one way to find out!”).

Combat is a little awkward. During most of the game, you play from a first person perspective. During combat, however, you can shift in to a Splinter Cell-style 3rd person in order to use one of those sticky-cover systems. Mostly it’s a series of odd little things that make it uncomfortable. Such as: you would think that the “down the sights” button and the “aim from cover” button would be the same, but they are different. Note that you can also use the 3rd-person cover system when not in combat, like to sneak around and avoid detection. The transition between the two perspectives is fairly smooth, but I still find myself wishing they would have decided on one or the other. The NPC AI I encountered thus far in combat has felt incredibly stupid (I’m playing on the hardest difficulty), e.g. standing out in the open and shouting canned phrases at you (which recycle within the span of a minute or two). Also rearing its ugly head is the rechargeable health system which every developer these days seems to think is awesome. The screen goes red, and then fades after a while if you don’t get shot for long enough. I guess it’s down to personal preference, but I completely hate that. I suppose if you examine it within the context of the game it’s not terribly unrealistic: your character has cybernetic enhancements and is probably full of nanomachines that could ostensibly repair his wounds given enough time. Maybe if I remind myself of that constantly it won’t be so bad.

I guess a final note would be the soundtrack, which might be one of the few things helping the game feel like Deus Ex. I would describe it as sounding like Mass Effect meets Tron: Legacy. It’s nice at first and helps give the game that Blade Runner atmosphere, but I could see it getting on my nerves after a while.

Like I said, these opinions are only based on a short playthrough of a build that will presumably undergo a lot more tweaking before release. I’m hoping that further in to the game some of the restrictive feeling will open up. I will update with more when I’ve played through a longer portion of the game.

Up ‘till now, however, it’s mostly a disappointment, and doesn’t really feel Deus Ex-like.

Update 1.

So I'm in the 2nd level now and I need to make a few corrections.

Apparently in the first level there were a couple things I couldn't do that I now can. First of all there is a manual save option in the main menu. Still no quick-save keybind though. I will have to remember to save more frequently because it's already apparent that the checkpoint system is woefully inadequate.

Second, the mousewheel DOES default to weapon switch. I'm not sure why this wasn't the case during the first level.

Third, the dialogue seems to be opening up a bit, and you CAN indeed skip through it using spacebar (there is no keybind or indication of this, just came upon it by pressing a bunch of buttons in frustration).

Perhaps this is just a case of really terrible design decisions for the game's intro?

Let's hope so...

Oh also, I jumped down what appeared to be a 10 foot drop, and Adam died. Uh... I thought augs were supposed to make you stronger, not enfeebled.

Update 2.

Alright, I've played a little further in to level 2, so I will mention some more things now that I've played around in a non-intro level a bit more. I got another hour or so under my belt before the game CTD'd.

There was an especially obnoxious bug I encountered. The game kept switching to the sniper rifle as my selected weapon, despite me constantly switching back to and wanting to use the traquilizer gun. I figured switching it out of the quick-use item bar might stop it but then... I couldn't figure out how to switch things out of the quick-use bar.

I'm sure this bug will be gone soon enough, but it alerted me to another issue which is that the inventory is really bizarre. It lets you drag-and-drop items from your inventory in to the quick-use bar, but not drag them back out of the quick-use bar. I *think* you can assign things to slots using various number keys, but this appears to be a clunky system at best. I suppose having a game manual might help out in this case... not sure. It's also bizarre because certain items (such as painkiller pills, energy bars) show up in the quick-use bar, but not in your inventory. Once again, I have no idea how to get them to un-occupy those quick-use slots. It also appears that the only way to select them is via the number keys. This also applies to grenades. There is an assigned key to throw grenades/explosives, but there is no key to select which one you want to use besides the number keys.

I guess this is OK, but I don't use the standard WASD keyboard configuration. I re-map my keys so that the numpad controls all movement and menu functions. However the game seems to have a problem distinguishing between the numpad and the horizontal number keys. This is quite possibly why my sniper rifle kept showing up.

Also about that sniper rifle -- there was a pre-mission cut scene where part of your dialogue choices appear to be for selecting your gear loadout. You are asked how you want to approach the mission (aggressive or stealth, up-close or far away) and are shown weapon choices based on those selections. Except that once the mission started, I was given both the sniper rifle and the tranq rifle, which had been under separate options. So what was the point of that decision anyways?

I have also encountered some more combat/sneaking. The 3rd-person during cover / 1st-person during everything else gameplay is becoming increasingly obnoxious. I had previously compared the cover system to Splinter Cell, but that proved to be somewhat of an inadequate description. Mostly because Splinter Cell's cover system was extremely fluid and intuitive. You could move from cover-to-cover quick and effortlessly, and hop over small barriers and back in to cover. Not so in HR. In this game you must constantly switch back and forth between 1st and 3rd person to move about, which is obnoxious to say the least, especially since you aren't always sure whether you are completely behind cover or not. You also cannot aim through a scoped weapon when in cover for some reason.

Then there is the take-down system. Still not sure how I feel about this. It makes non-lethal stealth take-downs insanely easy. You just press one button, somewhere in the vicinity of an NPC, and the view switches to one of several canned animation sequences of you knocking out the baddie. I feel like this should be much harder to do, but I'm not sure how the martial arts of it could be accomplished without some terrible quick time event (which would most certainly be a worse alternative). The only other basis for comparison I can think of is the CQC system in MGS3 & 4, which was unreliable at best, and often had you doing the exact opposite of what you intended to do. Still, a one-button KO where you only have to be reasonably near the NPC feels far too easy, especially in hard mode.

On the plus side, the game is starting to feel less generic-shootery. Still has a long way to go though.

Final note until I think of other stuff: NPC facial variation appears to be pretty poor. The SWAT guy you talk to before entering the warehouse appears to have the same exact face as one (or more) of the NPC baddies.